The Future of Work: Is Retail Adapting Fast Enough?

All this talk about artificial intelligence, robotics, augmented reality, autonomous driving, high speed hyperloops, and the many other disruptive technologies make me wonder about the future of work and how these things are going to affect the retail sector.

With the introduction of all of these technologies, people don’t work the way the generations before us did – and that’s likely to change even more. In fact it’s estimated that 83% of jobs paying less than $20 an hour will likely be automated (maybe even replaced by a robot) in the next 20 years.

Based on what the average retail store associate makes, I’d say that might be almost all of them. And that begs the question: what are we doing to adapt – and are we doing it fast enough?

 

For The Future of Work Disruption is Imminent and Pervasive

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In the 12 months ending in June 2015, 90% of the top 100 consumer brands lost market share. Was it due to technology? The only disruptive technology listed above that is set to change the service industries (and let’s face it already, retail is a service industry) is artificial intelligence (A.I.).

A.I.-powered chat bots can replace some of the human-customer conversations and reduce costs for retailers who can now scale, having more conversations with more customers at once (compared to the number of conversations one measly human can have).

But in my opinion, great service comes down to a degree of empathy that you don’t get from current technology. And talking to bots via chat is nothing like conversing with an actual human being – at least not yet.

When it comes to store associates and warehouse works, what will jobs be like, if they even exist at all?

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Retail’s Staffing Strategy Needs to Change

Retailers need to start making changes to the way they staff these roles in the short-term, so they can attract better talent in the long-term.

I still maintain that the quality of people being employed in-store at the vast majority of retailers around the world needs a complete re-think. Quality in this area alone is pretty pathetic.

Expectations are at an All Time High

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Customers are demanding higher levels of experiences from merchants. Well, at least merchants that aren’t only about the lowest possible priced products. For everyone who sells quality goods to quality customers, expectations from customers are at an all time high and I think will only get higher.

But then again, you might be the kind of merchant who really doesn’t give a shit about how great of an experience your customers have (at least be honest about it).

If you don’t give a shit about your customers, your business is likely doomed to fail.

If you care about customer experience, and you do want to continue to build your business into the future, then you need to start thinking about how all of these technologies coupled with the new generation of workers’ wants and needs are going to affect your business.

This is just my opinion, and for whatever it might be worth, I think it’s at least worth a small amount of mind share in your organization.

Going Beyond the People Problem

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I was recently having dinner with a good friend of mine who runs a pretty successful multi-store retail chain with a strong eCommerce business. He’s thinking about how he can provide a culture, work environment, the roles, and the flexibility of hours that people are asking from him more and more frequently.

We talked about location becoming less of an important factor in many of the roles at typical merchants. Outside of store staff and warehouse (people doing physical things), merchants employ the same knowledge workers found in any modern day business. And knowledge work is continuing to migrate to remote/virtual work.

I’ve written before about the growing people problem in this new, digital-first retail landscape. This is beyond that.

 

Is Your Retail Business Adapting?

People want more flexibility. Some people don’t want to work a 9-5, five days a week job. Are you the kind of retailer that’s going to offer this sort of flexibility to all of your staff? Can you adapt your company to these growing trends?

If you want to start to appeal to these needs, then it means learning from the newer generation of companies being started – and not just technology ones.

Don’t let History Hold You Back

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When it comes to how they hire, train and retain, the constraints of history can amount to a pretty sizeable ball and chain.

More and more companies are starting up without the constraints of history.

If you’re a retailer, manufacturer or wholesaler who is thinking about this stuff, please reach out and let me know your thoughts. To me this is simply my curiosity getting the best of me. I find the future of work a fascinating topic of discussion and want to see the industry that I’m in participate in that discussion.

So what are the next steps for the future of work? I make a living trying to bridge two worlds – technology and retail.

I think it’s time you do the same. We need to see technology as part of the way the retail industry hires people, trains them, speaks to customers, and experiences longevity. While the technology disruptions predicted may seem scary, they also spell opportunity – to change the way we think about retail. Are you ready?